User Experience’s Dark Side Raises Ethical Stakes

By Jim Griesemer

“If you choose the quick and easy path, as Vader did, you will become an agent of evil.”

–Yoda

DarkSide

In George Lucas’ epic screen saga, Star Wars, those with special talent and discipline can leverage The Force, the metaphysical power that binds the universe together – for good or for evil. The Force did not choose sides. It simply existed.

During the heady early days of user experience, many of us who leapt into the field felt much like the Jedi, the famed knights of Star Wars who used the Force to protect peace and justice. We were committed to bringing forth the principles and best practices of user experience that created intuitive interfaces. We strove to make the users’ experiences better, clearer, even to the point of being ‘seamless’ – the ultimate expression of an interface that not only gives the users what they want, but gives them what they need without them ever seeing how it happens.

It was only a question of time before the dark side of user experience would emerge. Now it has, as evidenced by the website called Dark Patterns. Curated by Harry Brignull, a user experience designer & consultant in Brighton and London, UK, Dark Patterns (darkpatterns.org) constitutes a library of interface design patterns used in websites and web-based applications to deceive users into actions that are generally not in their interest but are in the interest of the company. They are, in essence, examples of the dark side of user experience.

Yoda’s warning alerts us to the ubiquitous danger we face when we draw on the power of cognitive science that underlies our discipline. As interaction designers, we use that power with the best of intentions. In the Star Wars saga, Yoda warns Luke, an apprentice Jedi, as he heads into the most dangerous passage of his training, when the dark side of the Force will tempt him. Yoda cautions him that despite his best intentions to save his friends, he can still succumb to the road to Hell.

In the world of design, the temptations of the dark side are nothing new. In 1964, Ken Garland, a British designer, published the First Things First Manifesto, a clarion call for designers to resist the use of their talents to promote products of little social value. Four hundred graphic designers and artists endorsed his manifesto. When an updated version of the manifesto was published as First Things First 2000 in Adbusters, 33 internationally recognized graphic design professionals endorsed it, including Milton Glaser, the famous creator of the “I Love New York” logo. Glaser went on to publish The Road to Hell in a special edition of AIGA’s membership publication dedicated to “truth.” In this seminal piece, Glaser presented 12 scenarios that challenged designers to confront how far they would go with whether or not they would use their talents to help companies design deceptive advertising. Each scenario represented a progressively more challenging compromise to personal ethics, from the most innocuous implied meaning to out-and-out deception to sell a product known to cause death. Framed in this manner, Glaser forced the graphic design community to think about when ethics demanded turning down work. But in this context, he raised awareness of how ethics was a question of “where you draw the line,” a far cry from the common perception of telling the truth as being absolute.

UX designers today face the same challenge, only now the ethical stakes are higher. The forces that UX leverages are grounded in cognitive science that has advanced rapidly in recent decades. How humans interact with an application interface is a subtle psychological dance from system display to human perception to human action to system feedback and back again. Affordances in the interface, that ever-present subconscious communicator, drive people to think and then act without realizing it. The “force” of interaction design is powerful indeed, on an order of magnitude beyond the power of print creations that raised the clarion call from graphic designers of the last century.

Perhaps the time has come for a user experience ‘First Things First Manifesto’ to challenge the ethics of dark patterns.  Such a manifesto would need thought leaders in the UX community to step up to the plate to endorse it. Until that happens, it is up to every interaction designer in user experience to be aware of the signposts along the road to Hell.

Look at darkpatterns.org and learn how to recognize deception when it shows up in business requirements. Call it out and push back when you can. Learn how to communicate with product managers and business stakeholders about the larger issues to consider. Any business model that requires the use of deception to perpetuate its existence is not a sound business model. Reliance on dark patterns leads the business into escalating cycles of deceptive interaction design practices that, over time, can destroy the users’ trust in the application, and ultimately, the company.

Jim Griesemer has been a designer for more than 28 years, starting his career as a graphic designer and art director in the publishing industry. Not long after taking up web design before the turn of the century, Jim experienced a designer’s ‘epiphany,’ entered user experience, and never looked back. For the last 11 years, Jim has been a passionate advocate for user experience and usability. He has led and collaborated on user experience teams for several companies, including Global Knowledge, Electronic Ink, The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, EURO RSCG Life, Kodak Gallery, Kaiser Permanente, and LexisNexis. Jim is currently leading work on an internationally based design pattern library.

 

Comments

  1. I must naturally be a good person, because I never really thought about using the good principles of user-centered design for nefarious purposes. An excellent article by a man who clearly knows what he’s talking about (and has his moral compass pointed in the right direction, too). Will pay attention where I click from now on.

    • Thank you, Monica!

  2. It’s difficult reading this without thinking paarraaanooiaaa (was it the voices?). If we’re being divisive about UX practioners, I’d rephrase this ‘good’ vs ‘evil’ distinction as ‘rational’ vs ‘paranoid’. The argument is one that’s been around for many years, and one that many UX folk do naturally feel a strong sense of ethical conviction around. Personally I’m fascinated why this is, though tend not to give it a lot of thought, because I don’t see good examples where the more ethically idealistic set produce a better product (broad sweeping statement but I’ll stand by it nonetheless), and generally believe this viewpoint is alienating and counterproductive.

  3. I can’t get away with generalising like that:

    Personally I’m of the opinion humans are naturally emotionally-led, irrational beings and open to persuasion. This frames the way we are, and every relationship we have is a balance where one individual influences the other. We are ‘pushed’ or ‘persuaded’ at almost every given moment. When my partner tells me she feels like a coffee when I’m on the couch, I don’t want to make her a coffee, but I might if she has persuaded me via a complex set of background factors. Similarly in the business sense, there’s an interplay between business and customer – it is a reality of the relationship, having existed since the dawn of trade. When designing an experience, it’s therefore narrow minded to think from simply from one perspective (the user), and limiting to think from one or the other. This is why I think of the user-centred approach as one input to design, and if a business decides they will follow a wholy user-led design approach, then good luck to them (it’s a useful exercise if nothing else).

    Clearly there are limits to what we can (and should) persaude the customer to do (and your Ryan Air scenario is a well chosen example). Similarly Bernay’s ‘torches of freedom’ campaign encouraging women to smoke is not something that could be done today in light of the public good. Personal confidence gains are outweighed by lung cancer risk.

    If I can use the dark vs light analogy, the best marketers/designers/strategists think very smartly in the grey area inbetween. They nurture relationships between customer and business, exploiting a complex set of factors. They do it effortlessly, they don’t overanalyse, and they focus on the whole, not parts of the whole. The difference in today’s environment is that technology and therefore knowledge about the customer demands a closer interplay between customer and business. This is why customer need is more relevant than ever. But customer need is one part of a whole.

    I’ve gone on a bit .. but it’s clearly an area that stirs passions. And I like positions that disrupt the status quo, and help us move forward. Cennydd Bowles article (http://bit.ly/WCPJsn) is one such. With that in mind ..

    UX folk might consider where they sit. Smart, multi-dimensional thinkers, inclusive and working with the team vs divisive and one-dimensional thinkers, sitting in the corner, just a little paranoid.

  4. A *really* interesting article. Ethical standards needed in UX? Perhaps, perhaps not. Deceiving the customer will inevitably lead to a BAD customer experience and the loss of credibility. Credibility, once lost, is incredibly difficult to regain (Hello, BP). So it is really NEVER in the interests of a professional UX practitioner to use ‘dark patterns’. Short term gain = long term pain.

  5. Hi Jim – I noticed the earlier message wasn’t posted, and I’m happy to rephrase if you’d prefer. It wasn’t supposed to be personal – it was a reflection on a very broad segment of UX, which I believe you’re articulating (and it’s likely I’m in the minority, and fully expect to get shot down, as a matter of fact!!). I’d like to see this discourse happen. It’s positive. best Matt

  6. It goes without saying that credibility is a major factor in creating a positive UX than most of the other things, hence results in loyal and customers. Practice of dark UX diminishes that immensely and they are shooting themselves on the foot than anything in my opinion.

  7. Thank you for the discussion. I want to be clear that I am not calling out UX Practitioners as being “good” or “evil” for what they do. I truly believe that the majority people in UX are genuinely dedicated to doing what’s good for other people. Empathy is the foundation of our profession. But as the First Things First Manifesto states, “Commercial work has always paid the bills.” Designers know that they have to balance what is good for the users with what is good for the business or risk losing their jobs. The company has to meet its goals and stay in business. We often have to compromise and sometimes it does come down to “shades of gray” and the acceptance of a minor dark pattern (Exactly why I referenced the Milton Glaser article).

    Beyond personal choices, there is a larger issue at stake. As Curt Coffman coined “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” The subconscience influence of affordances in a user interface exist at higher order of magnitude than what the printed page can achieve and while people regularly mistrust printed promotions (even television ads), they will more likely blame themselves for missteps on the computer — I’ve observed this phenomenon many times in usability tests. Dark patterns can become very attractive to companies because they can dramatically increase immediate revenues. The “quick and easy path” (as Yoda calls it) may yield results, making money on the odds of accidental purchases, leftover subscriptions, etc. Allowing these patterns to be leveraged can easily become part of the company’s culture. However, because such deceptive practices are dependent on being undiscovered, using dark patterns will inevitably come at the cost of customer loyalty. Once users discover it and realize that they have been tricked, they will never come back. The company’s best strategies can be eaten by a culture of deception.

    As UX practitioners, we have a unique insight into the power of affordances within the interface. If we learn how they work, we have the expertise to see dark patterns and push back, where we can, for the users. I suggest presenting the risks. When a dark pattern is suggested (even unintentionally), let the product manager know what risks come with engaging in its use. The information is out there, well documented by the thought leaders and researchers of User Experience. Cite it! If the business still engages in its use, at least you’ve done your due diligence with surfacing the risks.

  8. a wonderful and necessary discussion. i would respectfully suggest the basis of the perspective is off slightly. ux is ‘born’ of design but is no longer finding relevance in just that context as it transcends from the screen to the ‘system.’ as peter merholz described rather aptly last year, we’re headed into a new era of ux as a profession, not a practice. http://uxweek.com/2012/speakers/peter-merholz/

    i would therefore suggest that the ethos won’t be found through the eyes of design, but rather in the basis of craft. hundreds of years of craftsmanship exist as reference. architecture comes to mind. architects must be certified because buildings can fall down. but who’s certifying us? beyond architecture, the human body is a system… and a moral obligation. hence the hippocratic oath. great expertise in UCD is ultimately a moral imperative if you ladder up high enough.

    if user-centered designers are in the business of building systems, we’re in the business of world-making. at ADMCi, we’ve begun establishing 7 tenets as a north star to guide us.

    http://www.ADMCi.org/culture

  9. @Jim, I welcome and embrace this change! I would love to find ways to contribute in moving forward the new era of UX that Peter Merholz and Jesse James Garrett presented, because I can tell you from personal experience on the front lines, the vison that Peter described has not yet become commonplace. In my experience, UX continues to be relegated to a sublevel department, usually comprised of interaction designers and usability professionals (sometimes visual designers and writers), and folded under a larger umbrella of Marketing or Engineering. All too often, members of a UX “department” find themselves in adversarial roles, desperately trying to make the case for a better user experience in a project work schedule that barely has time to get the thing built. Over the years, I have witnessed many discussions regarding which critical user experience improvements the team will successfully be able to get through to be implemented, as if the team were given a set number of UX “chips” that they could spent on a release.

    To fulfill the vision of this new era, we will have to work at changing the culture. We all know that the value of User Experience needs to be communicated with compelling evidence in terms that makes sense to the business — and much of that still needs to happen. But I think we need to go further. The UX practitioners who are still labeled as “designers” continue to worry about their portfolios because companies still ask for examples of their work (as in “Show me what you designed.”). As long as a reward structure exists that is dependent on displaying a personal portfolio as examples of beautiful design achievement, UX practitioners involved with design will continue to lean towards making design decisions that enhance their portfolios. Even worse, such a structure pushes practitioners into becoming attached to their designs, the death nell of the necessary objectivity that is needed to fulfill the mandate of User Experience.

    The time has come for the portfolio as the “end all and be all” of profesional achievement to die. Examples of interfaces should only be presented as a reference points for answering what is really important: How did you collaborate in a team to understand the target users and their tasks and goals? How did you work in that team to bring those insights forward? How and where did you work to get established usability heuristics implemented into the application? What is the story of the application and where did you fit into the work of improving the User Experience? If a UX practitioner has fulfilled those challenges, the actual interface presented as a reference does not have to be beautiful. Appearance should matter less than the substance of the collaborative work that goes into improving the experience for the users.

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